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On Glenn Greenwald and His Fans | The Nation

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Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein

Where the past isn’t even past.

On Glenn Greenwald and His Fans


Glenn Greenwald, a reporter for
The Guardian, speaks to reporters at his hotel in Hong Kong Monday, June 10, 2013. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu) “

Shorter @rickperlstein ‘server,’ does not mean ‘server.’ How much did Big Data pay u to play Judas? Regret buying 1 of ur books.”

The message, from tweeter @runtodaylight, came Friday, in quick reaction to my response to Glenn Greenwald’s piece “On PRISM, Partisanship, and Propaganda.” Yesterday I received what a friend described as a “condolence” note about the abuse I’ve been getting from Greenwald fans—but no condolences are necessary. Luckily, for whatever reason, stuff like this has next to no emotional effect on me. The way I look at it, the work I’m blessed to be able to do affords me a cascade of privileges—attention, respect and a middle-class income; all that for safe, dry, indoor work; the grace of spending my days honoring the wellsprings of creativity churning inside me; near-constant affectionate avowals from strangers who trust that the things I tap out on my laptop have afforded them some measure of meaning, pleasure or understanding; that the small quantum of stupid stuff that comes my way never much penetrates. Thanks to this thick skin, I read all my comments. A lot of writers don’t. They talk about how the anonymity of the Internet licenses shallowness and cruelty. Eh, whatever. I’m never entirely sure that whatever I write is correct or clear or useful or profound or not, so a lot of stuff others consider straight-up trolling I often welcome as contributions to what I’m trying to accomplish. Which, after all, is a collective, not personal, project—for if I’m not reaching people and persuading people, I’m not doing anything at all. It’s good to know when people are not being reached or persuaded. So I listen and strive to respect my friendly and unfriendly interlocutors both, as best I can, for they are my lifeblood. What else can I do?

Glenn Greenwald, I’ve been learning, is different. Here’s what he said out of the box about my argument that he may have made a mistake in his claim about how PRISM works: that it turns “the eagerness of Democratic partisans to defend the NSA as a means of defending President Obama.” I’m one of the propagandists referred to in his piece’s title. Not correct. Not clear. Not profound. But most of all and most importantly, not useful. Let me say a bit as to why.

For one thing, I couldn’t care less about defending Barack Obama. I think he sucks at most parts of his job as I understand it—tactically, strategically, ideologically, rhetorically, intellectually, ethically—but I’m not going to get caught in a pissing match establishing my bona fides on the subject. Should I link to this so that I’ll maybe “win” the argument? I’d rather not. Too late, because I just did—the temptation of intellectuals to make this “about us” is too great. We’re human. We have egos. (“If you’re reduced to implying that Rick Fking Perlstein is overly solicitous of this administration, it’s time to lose all the fanboys and come back to the pack a little”: Thanks, Charlie Pierce!) But I wish we didn’t, because ultimately, it’s not about us. Our power to unmake a president, or bear him aloft with the sheer power of our prose if that’s what we prefer, is nugatory anyway. All we can do it try to tell the truth as we understand it, without fear or favor.

I feel incredibly fortunate to be have been allowed to do so without trimming my sails or looking over my shoulder, which is a good thing, because I have no idea how I’d survive if I had to change how I wrote to please a patron. My writing brain, for good or ill, just isn’t built that way. Some readers will look at my work and say that isn’t possible, pointing to all the ways I fall short of some abstract standard of anti-institutional purity. It’s an unfortunate logical fallacy on the left: that you can weigh a writer’s “radicalism” on some sort of scale, and from that arrive at a surefire calculation as to whether his or her heart is for sale (“How much did Big Data pay u to play Judas?”). Some simply can’t believe that “liberals”—even centrists!—might arrive at their positions through independent thought.

Now, am I “Democratic partisan”? Maybe a little bit, sometimes. In the final analysis, yes, Rick Perlstein prefers a strong Democratic Party to a weak one. That said, I think I understand more clearly than most the corporate corrosions that make it such a pathetic vehicle for those who aspire to justice. Unfortunately, given the rules of the American political game, people who try to participate by self-righteously refusing to identify with one or the other of the two parties are like people who say they love to play baseball but refuse to join a team. The name of this game—a loooooong game—is ideological civil war for the soul of each party. And one you can’t win if you don’t play. I don’t write that because I’m a partisan, or because I prefer a two-party system. I write that because I think it’s true.

But that’s all a digression. And one that has nothing to do with whether Greenwald is wrong or right about PRISM (he’s wrong, by the way) and why that matters. Ultimately, in a debate like this, the best thing a politically engaged intellectual can do is write in a way that does not short-circuit thought. And my, oh, my, does Greenwald’s style of political discourse short-circuit thought—with a fierceness. You see it in the way both his supporters and his critics (even The Nation has turned against him! The national security state has been vindicated) respond to his work.

Read another tweet:

“NSA admits listening to U.S. phone calls without warrants cnet.co/1agOFCy via @CNET What say you, @RickPerlstein ?”

I think we can detect here an accusatory tone, especially given the way the tweeter, “therealpriceman,” fawns over Glenn Greenwald generally. (Though you can never be sure on the Internet, and besides, why do people pursue political arguments on Twitter anyway? I’ll never understand how, for instance, “When u talk gun violence lk in mirror PA here we cling to guns-apologz to PRES O”—another tweet directed my way, apparently somehow meant to respond to this—could possibly contribute anything useful to our common political life.) I detect in this message: even the NSA says you’re wrong about Glenn Greenwald, so when are you going to apologize? And if I’m reading right, that’s some really smelly stupidity. Because the whole point of my original post was that there was plenty Greenwald had “nailed dead to rights” in his reporting. What I had in mind when I wrote that (I should have specified this, I think) was the stuff on Verizon turning over metadata to the NSA. And yet what therealpriceman links to is an article suggesting something that Greenwald has not (yet?) claimed, and which still remains controversial and undetermined: that the NSA has acknowledged that it does not need court authorization to listen to domestic phone calls, a claim sourced to Representative Jerrold Nadler, which Nadler based on a classified briefing he and other congressmen received, but which it has since been established Nadler probably just misunderstood.

The bottom line is that there’s an attitude out there that anything bad anyone says about the NSA must be a priori true, and that anything bad anyone says about the NSA must have already been said by Glenn Greenwald, and that anyone who questions Greenwald about anything must be questioning Greenwald about everything, and thus thinks the NSA (and its boss Barack Obama) is swell.

And where might someone get that idea? By thinking like Greenwald, actually.

As I noted on Friday, Greenwald writes in “On PRISM, Partisanship, and Propaganda,” “Rick Perlstein falsely accuses me of not having addressed the questions about the PRISM story”; but I didn’t accuse him of not having addressed “the questions” but instead a single question—whether Internet companies give the National Security Agency “direct access” to all their data as opposed to carefully controlled access to a very limited amount of data—a question he still did not address, including in the interview he linked to in order to claim he had addressed it “at least half-a-dozen” times.

He also wrote this: “I know that many Democrats want to cling to the belief that, in Perlstein’s words, ‘the powers that be will find it very easy to seize on this one error to discredit [my] NSA revelation, even the ones he nailed dead to rights.’ Perlstein cleverly writes that ‘such distraction campaigns are how power does its dirtiest work’ as he promotes exactly that campaign. But that won’t happen. The documents and revelations are too powerful.”

He’s right, and he’s wrong. So far Greenwald has been lucky, and because he has been lucky, everyone who cares about fixing our puke-worthy system of “oversight” of the American state’s out-of-control spy regime has been lucky too. Yes, clowns like Peter King and irrelevant throwbacks like Dick Cheney cry treason and call for death squads or tumbrels or whatever. But the bottom line is that for whatever reason (reasons I think will only become clear in the light of later history), the American establishment seems ready to think about this story—ready to give a hard look at what our surveillance state has become. The evidence is there in thoughtful and detailed reporting and analysis on how PRISM might actually work, for instance in this Associated Press piece (which is far more usefully critical than the typical piece on the Bush administration’s lies about Iraq’s claimed weapons of mass destruction in 2003, which the American establishment was not ready to think about), and this analysis by technologist Ashkan Soltani—both of which sort through the available evidence far better than Glenn Greenwald does, but also would not exist without what Greenwald and Edward Snowden courageously did, however flawed Greenwald and Snowden might be as messengers. Life can be complicated that way.

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But about the the flaws of those messengers: what I wrote, about how established power deals with revelations it’s not ready to confront, is not that clever at all. It’s just a banal observation. Greenwald seems to believe that preserving his credibility to keep on doing this work is not something he needs to actively worry about—the “documents and revelations are too powerful.” Bullshit. I wish I had the certainty of Glenn Greenwald—about lots of things. But I don’t—constitutionally so. What I do have, a bit, is some historical perspective. And given that perspective, I would love to know why Glenn Greenwald thinks the establishment cannot do to him, a relative flyspeck in the grand scheme of things, what they did to Dan Rather, a towering giant of Washington reporting going back to Watergate. Which is: consign him to the outer darkness, where the only people who care about what he has to say are the likes of my good friends @therealpriceman and @runtodaylight.

If that’s good enough for Glenn, well, then, fine. Me, I’d rather not see him discredit himself. And that’s what’s happening. It’s happening even among those who want to be his supporters. As one of them wrote on Facebook, “Here’s the thing: I suspect Perlstein, Charles Pierce, Dave Niewert and I—to mention the commenters here I’ve actually met—could have a spirited exchange about these issues, maybe even change each others’ minds somewhat. That can’t happen with Greenwald, whom I’ve never met, becuase the FIRST thing he does out of the box is accuse anyody who disagrees with him of bad faith. That not only makes him a poor advocate, it weakens one’s trust in his reporting.”

He’s losing friends. Soon, his friends, and his luck, may run out.

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